For many music fans, this year – and we’re not even two months into it – began sadly, with the demise of talented and influential musicians such as David Bowie, Glenn Frey (The Eagles), Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane; Jefferson Starship), Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream) and, in early February, Maurice White, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, a much-loved, highly-praised American band.

In his elements: Maurice White (centre) founded the much-loved American band Earth, Wind & Fire which took black pop to a different level by fusing funk, soul, R&B, blues and rock. (Photo: Getty Images)

In his elements: Maurice White (centre) founded the much-loved American band Earth, Wind & Fire which took black pop to a different level by fusing funk, soul, R&B, blues and rock. (Photo: Getty Images)

I hadn’t heard Earth, Wind & Fire in a long time and White’s death, albeit a sad occasion, became a cue for me to dig out their Greatest Hits album, the one with 17 songs including Got to Get You Into My Life, Can’t Hide Love, Shining Star, Let’s Groove, Saturday Nite, and many more – all hits from 1974-81, the period that is considered to be the band’s golden era.

Many critics who’ve acclaimed Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) say the band had the ability to cross generic boundaries; that they took black pop to a different level by fusing funk, soul, R&B, blues and rock but I think that at the core of Earth, Wind & Fire’s sound is funk and groove – the rhythm that the interplay of drums, keyboards and bass brings to their music.

EWF’s lead singer Philip Bailey was versatile – he had a four-octave range and could sing everything from funk to blues to gospel to rock and roll. Added to that were White’s mellower vocals; the meticulous arrangements involving horns, guitars, besides the funky keyboards, drums and bass; and a generally upbeat spirit, all of it making for a spirited musical experience.

I haven’t heard a single EWF song that isn’t uplifting: the Greatest Hits album closes with Getaway, a song about escaping boredom and seeking joy that may well epitomise the band’s musical spirit. White suffered from Parkinson’s disease and had to retire from the band in 1994 but continued to remain active in controlling EWF.

Also watch: Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers (Live at Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969)

After an hour or two of EWF, as homage to Paul Kantner I pulled out my Jefferson Airplane collection and chose Surrealistic Pillow, their second album from 1967. Pioneers of the San Francisco sound during the Summer of Love years, their music was redolent of psychedelia, of the ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ era of hippiedom.

Sweet goodbyes: Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), Glenn Frey (The Eagles). (Photo: Getty Images)

Sweet goodbyes: Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), Glenn Frey (The Eagles). (Photo: Getty Images)

On Surrealistic Pillow, Airplane do some of their most memorable songs. There’s Somebody to Love, which was written by vocalist Grace Slick’s then brother-in-law, Darby; there’s Today; there’s the Alice in Wonderland inspired White Rabbit; and there’s Plastic Fantastic Lover.

After the Airplane broke up, Kantner, Slick and some of the others formed Jefferson Starship. I have their 1975 album, Red Octopus. So I played that too. Starship had a more commercial sound than its mothership, Jefferson Airplane. But a nice trip down memory lane it was.

Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream) and David Bowie (right). (Photo: Getty Images)

Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream) and David Bowie (right). (Photo: Getty Images)

And then, since I’d embarked on that journey, I pulled out Froese’s German electronic band, Tangerine Dream’s Le Parc, which is an album from 1985 and has nine tracks, each of which is inspired by a famous park around the world. So you get tracks such as Central Park (New York), Bois de Boulogne (Paris), Zen Garden (Ryoanji Temple, Tokyo), Hyde Park (London) and so on. It’s not their best-known album but I like the theme.

I then heard one of their earlier albums, Stratosfear (1974), which marks the band’s move to a more melodious sound, with the Moog synthesizers still ruling but less experimental and not so off the wall. Tangerine Dream’s most influential years were during the 1970s and some of their music from that era may seem prescient when you listen to some of today’s modern electronic dance music.

As a tribute to Glenn Frey, I eschewed all The Eagles albums (including that one particular Eagles song for which Frey wrote the lyrics and that you must have heard in elevators, restaurants and rest-rooms) and went for 1993’s Glenn Frey Live, which has concert versions of several songs, including Desperado, a Lyin’ Eyes/Take it Easy medley, and New Kid in Town.

Also watch: David Bowie – Live at BBC Radio Theatre

That left me to decide which David Bowie album to play. It was a tough decision. I have tons of Bowie from over the years – studio albums, live ones, compilations and collaborations. I finally settled on a BBC sampler of six songs and one short interview from the 1969-72 period and which has on the playlist Hang Onto Yourself, Ziggy Stardust, Andy Warhol and Waiting for the Man. In the interview, David Bowie, then 22 (it is 1969), talks about Space Oddity, which had just released. He’s soft-spoken, self-deprecating and full of humility. So refreshing.

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Beginning with their first studio effort in 2007, Red Album, every LP by Baroness, the heavy metal band from Savannah in the US state of Georgia, is titled with the name of a colour. Their second album was called Blue Record; then came 2012’s Yellow & Green (it was a double album); and then, last month they released their latest, Purple. The colour thing for their album titles seems apt.

Baroness (left, with frontman and guitarist John Baizley in the centre) performs in Chicago in 2012. (Photo: Corbis)

Baroness (left, with frontman and guitarist John Baizley in the centre) performs in Chicago in 2012. (Photo: Corbis)

Baroness, as I said, are a heavy metal band – some music critics affix prefixes such as ‘stoner’, ‘alternative’ or ‘sludge’ to their genre but the fact is that they are a heavy metal band. And heavy metal bands are? Well, they are loud, deep sounding, aggressive, distortion-loving purveyors of music that is not necessarily associated with colour other than different shades of black. Dark and brooding is how the music played by most heavy metal bands can seem. But Baroness are different. Their music, even when it has all the required attributes of metal – loudness; heavy beats; and fierceness – is also vibrant and colourful.

Also watch: Baroness live at Saint Vitus Bar

On Yellow & Green, there are songs, such as Twinkler, which begins with a melodic acoustic guitar (albeit against the background of a mildly ominous sounding giant fly’s buzz); there are lyrics, such as those on March to the Sea, that can seem uncommon for a heavy metal band: There was a whisper/Once there were heralds and parades/ You sang your secrets through the tolling of the tide/ The fugitive rooms, the amateur tombs/ The silence and the cries/ The quickening beat/ Your march to the sea/ Never to return; and on Purple, their latest, there are guitar solos and drum lines, such as the one on The Iron Bell, which can make them sound like a southern jam band (albeit one that is probably amped up on speed and steroids).

Four years ago the future of Baroness may have seemed uncertain. The band, while touring the UK, met with an accident when its tour coach fell 30 feet, injuring most members of the band, two of them, the drummer and the bassist, very badly. Those two ultimately had to quit the band and to many it seemed that Baroness would never play again.

Baizley's gorgeous Art Nouveau-inspired album covers of Purple (above, left) and Red Album.

Baizley's gorgeous Art Nouveau-inspired album covers of Purple (above, left) and Red Album.

But the remaining members, including frontman and guitarist John Baizley, bounced back after spending months in recovery. And then came Purple. As is customary for the band, Baizley not only wrote the songs but also did the cover artwork for Purple, which, as it has always been for the band’s other albums, is gorgeous. Baizley’s artwork is influenced by the Art Nouveau style; it is intricate and decorative with a mythological theme (an aside: if you want to explore Baizley’s art, go to www.aperfectmonster.com).

Back to the music. In many ways, Purple, the first album by Baroness after the band’s accident, carries a sense of the trauma that the band members underwent. It is dark; it is heavy; and, while Baizley’s songs don’t directly refer to the incident, the mood captures it.

Yellow & Green was for me the most accessible heavy metal album I have heard. Its infectious melodic hooks, bright guitar solos and harmonised singing completely upturned my pre-conceived notions of a heavy metal band – much like another band, the black metal group Deafheaven had.

In contrast, Baroness’s first two albums were heavier, fitting the definition of the heavy metal genre better. Now, Purple takes another step in the evolution of the band: on this new album, the deep and loud sound is layered with melodies, guitar riffs and choruses – a perfect blend of the heavy and the light.

TAILPIECE:
The late David Bowie’s last album is the only one of his albums that doesn’t have an image of him on the cover; instead it has a black star and that gives it its name, Blackstar. Bowie who died at 69 on January 10 after an 18-month-long battle with cancer was an itinerant experimenter – both with his music as well as his looks.

The legend from Brixton: David Bowie's last album, Blackstar, had the experimental singer fronting a jazz band, a perfect epitaph for a storied life. (Photo: Getty Images)
The legend from Brixton: David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, had the experimental singer fronting a jazz band, a perfect epitaph for a storied life. (Photo: Getty Images)

Those who’ve tracked Bowie’s brilliant career and his rapidly changing musical style – from art rock, glam rock, soul, funk, and electronic – will find that Bowie’s last album is a jazz album with the singer fronting a jazz band. A perfect epitaph for a storied life.

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So many great albums have dropped in the past year that I don’t know how to even make a list of the ones that I liked. How many can I list? Fifty? Sixty? More? Music blogs and magazines have already put out their top albums of 2013 lists. Some, such as Rolling Stone, have listed 50; NPR has 100 favourite songs and 50 favourite records; PopMatters lists 75 best albums of 2013; and many others have lists for every genre (tip: if you want to get a smattering of what was happening in metal last year, do check out Stereogum’s top 50 in that loud genre; I was happy when I took a peek there to see the only metal album of last year that I bought, Deafheaven’s Sunbather, was No.1). Read more
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Recommendation: If you haven’t watched the music critic and author Anthony DeCurtis’s more than an hour-long interview with Reed, there’s a link here.

For much of the last fortnight, I have been listening to Lou Reed’s music, re-exploring especially his and the Velvet Underground’s discography of the 1960s and early ’70s. But there’s been quite a bit of new music on my playlist too. Here’s a listing in no particular order. Read more

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Around 10 days back, my colleague in London mailed me a link with a short note that simply said “Yes they are back! And I can die in peace”. The link was to a lyric video (the kind where you can read the lyrics while listening to the song) of The Rolling Stones’ latest new single, Doom And Gloom. And the note from my colleague who’s obviously a huge Stones fan besides being an erstwhile (or, is he still one?) bass slapper himself, is an example of how much diehard Stones fans love the 50-year-old band. Read more

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Ever since The New York Times did a gushing story a couple of weeks back about his place, Emilio Vitolo’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Salubrious isn’t a word you’d use to describe New York’s East Houston Street around where it intersects with Mott Street. Neither would you call it tony or elegant. Far from it. There is a kind of perpetual pattern about the construction that happens to take place around the area. Large trucks, big men with hard hats, scaffoldings, and paint cans…. All of this is ubiquitous around that stretch of E Houston. Not exactly a place where you’d expect star musicians to hang out. Read more

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One simple rule: when the editor of a magazine drops a subtle hint to a columnist, he better heed it. So when the editor of Brunch handed me a CD she had bought on a recent trip to the US, I got the hint. Translated into words, that gift of a CD obviously meant: “Here, listen to this. Your columns are getting too obscure!” The CD she gave me was a re-issued decade-old album by a musician of whom I had never heard, Stephane Wrembel. I am glad that I wasted no time in listening to Wrembel’s album (Introducing Stephane Wrembel 2001). Read more

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March has been a bonanza for fans of the band, Phish. For not only did these kings of the jam band scene reunite after breaking up nearly five years ago, for those who couldn’t make it to their three-day marathon concerts (the venue was at Hampton in the US state of Virginia, after all), they put up the three concerts, held on March 6, 7 and 8, in their entirety on the Internet for free downloads.. Read more

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